Dead Souls—A Poem/Book Two/Chapter II

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Dead Souls—A Poem: Book Two, Chapter II
by Nikolai Gogol, translated by Constance Garnett


In a little over half an hour the horses had borne Tchitchikov over the seven or eight miles, at first through an oak copse, then by cornfields just beginning to turn green in the midst of the freshly ploughed land, then along the edge of the hillside from which fresh views over the distant plain came into sight every minute, and finally by a wide avenue of spreading lime-trees leading up to the general's village. The avenue of limes was followed by an avenue of poplars, protected below by hurdles and ended in openwork iron gates, through which peeped the ornately magnificent carved façade of the general's house, supported by eight columns with Corinthian capitals. Everywhere there was a smell of oil paint, with which everything was continually renewed, so that nothing could fall into decay. The courtyard was like a parquet floor for cleanliness. Driving up to the front door Tchitchikov mounted the steps deferentially, sent in his name, and was conducted straight to the study.

He was impressed by the general's majestic appearance. He was attired at the moment in a crimson satin dressing-gown. He had a frank glance, a manly face, grizzled whiskers and big moustaches, his hair was closely cropped, and especially so at the back. His neck was stout and thick, a neck in three storeys, as it is called (that is in three lateral folds with a crease at right angles to them), his voice was a somewhat husky bass, his gestures and deportment were those of a general. General Betrishtchev was, like all of us sinful mortals, possessed of many good qualities, and also of many defects; both were mixed up together in him in a sort of picturesque disorder, as is apt to be the case with Russians: he was capable of self-sacrifice, magnanimity, valour at critical moments, and was possessed of intelligence, and with all there was a considerable mixture of conceit, ambition, egoism, a petty readiness to take offence, and a very liberal portion of the weaknesses all flesh is heir to. He disliked all who rose above him in the service, and spoke of them in biting, sardonic epigrams. He was particularly severe upon a former colleague whom he regarded as his inferior in intelligence and abilities, although he had risen to a higher grade in the service, and was now governor-general of two provinces, in one of which General Betrishtchev had estates, so that he was in a sense dependent on his rival. In revenge he derided him, criticised every measure he took, and considered everything he said or did as the height of imbecility. In spite of his good heart the general was given to malicious mockery. Altogether he liked to be first, he liked applause and flattery, he liked to shine and to show off his cleverness, he liked to know what other people did not know, and did not like people who knew things he did not know. Though his education had been half foreign he wanted at the same time to play the part of a Russian grand gentleman. With such incongruous elements, with such great and glaring contradictions in his character, he was inevitably bound to meet with a number of unpleasant incidents, in consequence of which he retired from the service. He ascribed this to the intrigues of a hostile party, and had not the magnanimity to blame himself for anything. In retirement he still kept up the same picturesque majestic deportment. Whether he was in his frock-coat, his dress-coat or his dressing-gown he was always the same. Everything in him, from his voice to his slightest gesture was commanding, peremptory, and inspired in his inferiors if not respect at least awe.

Tchitchikov was conscious of both feelings, both respect and awe. Inclining his head respectfully on one side, he began as follows: 'I thought it my duty to present myself to your Excellency. I cherish the deepest respect for the distinguished men who have saved our country on the field of battle, and I thought it my duty to present myself in person to your Excellency.'

The general evidently did not dislike this mode of approach. With a gracious inclination of his head, he said: 'Very glad to make your acquaintance. Pray sit down. Where have you served?'

'My career in the service,' said Tchitchikov, sitting down, not in the middle of the chair but on the edge of it, with one hand holding on to the arm, 'began in the Treasury, your Excellency; I passed the later years of it in various departments: I have been in the Imperial Court department, and on the Buildings Committee and in the Customs. My life may be compared to a vessel in mid-ocean, your Excellency. In suffering, I may say, I was reared, in suffering I was fostered, in suffering I was swaddled, and I am, so to say, nothing but an embodiment of suffering. And what I have endured at the hands of my enemies no words could depict. Now in the evening, so to speak, of my life I am seeking a nook in which to spend the remnant of my days. I am staying for the time with a near neighbour of yours, your Excellency …'

'With whom?'

'At Tyentyetnikov's, your Excellency.'

The general frowned.

'He deeply regrets, your Excellency, that he did not show fitting respect …'

'Respect for what?'

'For the distinguished merits of your Excellency,' answered Tchitchikov. 'He cannot find words, he does not know how to atone for his conduct. He says: "If only I could in some way …" he says. "I know how to honour the men who have saved their country. …"'

'Upon my soul, what does he mean? … Why, I am not angry with him,' said the general, mollified. 'At heart I have a genuine affection for him, and I am sure that in time he will become a very useful person.'

'Most useful,' Tchitchikov assented. He has the gift of words and a ready pen.'

'But he writes, I expect, rubbish, trashy verses?'

'No, your Excellency, not rubbish.'

'Why what?'

'He is writing … a history, your Excellency.'

'A history! A history of what?'

'A history …' At this point Tchitchikov paused, and either because there was a general sitting before him or to give more importance to the subject, added, 'A history of generals, your Excellency.'

'Of generals? What generals?'

'All kinds of generals, your Excellency, that is, to be more exact … the generals of our country.'

'Excuse me, I don't quite understand. … How do you mean? Is it the history of some period, or separate biographies, and is it of all Russian generals or only those that took part in the campaign of 1812?'

'That is just it, your Excellency, the history of those that took part in the campaign of 1812.'

'Then why does he not come to me? I could give him a great deal of new and very interesting material.'

'He does not dare, your Excellency.'

'What nonsense! For the sake of a foolish word … I am not at all that sort of person. I am ready to go and call on him myself, if you like.'

'He would not think of allowing that, he will come himself,' said Tchitchikov, while he thought to himself, 'the generals came in pat; though I was gagging away quite at random.'

There was a rustling sound. The walnut door of a carved cupboard flew open, and on the further side of the open door a living figure appeared, clutching with her lovely hand at the handle of the door. If a transparent picture, lighted up by a lamp behind it, had suddenly gleamed upon a dark room, it would not have been so startling as that figure, radiant with life, which seemed to have suddenly appeared to light up the room. It seemed as though a ray of sunlight, suddenly lighting up the ceiling, the cornice and the dark corners, had flown into the room together with her. She seemed to be remarkably tall. But it was an illusion, and was due to her exceptional slenderness and the harmonious symmetry of all parts of her from her head to her finger tips. The dress all of one colour, hastily flung on, had been flung on with such taste, that it seemed as though the dressmakers of both capitals had consulted together how to attire her to the best advantage. That was an illusion. She made her own dresses and made them anyhow; a piece of uncut material was caught up in two or three places, and it hung and draped round her in such folds, that a sculptor would have at once chiselled them in marble, and young ladies, dressed in the fashion, looked like gaudy dolls beside her. Although her face was almost familiar to Tchitchikov from Andrey Ivanovitch's sketches he stared at her as though he were dazed, and only afterwards realised that she had a defect, that is, a lack of plumpness.

'Let me introduce my spoilt darling,' said the general, introducing Tchitchikov. 'But I don't know your name and your father's.'

'But is there any need to know the name of a man who has done nothing to give it distinction?' said Tchitchikov.

'But still one must know a man's name.'

'Pavel Ivanovitch, your Excellency,' said Tchitchikov, with a slight inclination of his head to one side.

'Ulinka! Pavel Ivanovitch has just told us a very interesting piece of news. Our neighbour Tyentyetnikov is by no means so stupid as we supposed. He is engaged on rather important work—a history of the generals of the year 1812.'

Ulinka seemed at once to fire up and grow eager. 'Why, who thought he was stupid?' she said quickly. 'Nobody could think such a thing except Vishnepokromov, whom you believe in, papa, though he is an empty-headed and contemptible person!'

'Why is he contemptible? He is an empty-headed fellow, that is true,' said the general.

'He is mean and disgusting as well as empty-headed,' Ulinka put in hastily. 'Any one who could treat his brothers as he did and turn his own sister out of the house is a disgusting person.'

'But that is only talk.'

'People wouldn't talk for nothing. You are kindness itself, papa, and no one has such a heart, but sometimes you do things that might make any one believe the opposite. You will welcome a man though you know he is bad just because he has the gift of the gab and knows how to get round you.'

'My love, I could not kick him out,' said the general.

'No need to kick him out, but why like him?'

'Well, your Excellency,' said Tchitchikov to Ulinka, with a slight inclination of his head and an agreeable smile, 'as Christians it is just those we ought to love,' and then turning to the general, he said smiling, this time rather slily, 'Did you ever hear, your Excellency, of the saying—"Love us dirty, for any one will love us clean"?'

'have never heard it.'

'It is a very interesting anecdote,' said Tchitchikov, with a sly smile. 'On the estate, your Excellency, of Prince Gukzovsky, whom no doubt your Excellency knows …'

'I don't know him.'

'… There was a steward, your Excellency, a young man and a German. He had to go to the town about the levy of recruits and other business, and of course he had to grease the hands of the court officials. They liked him however and entertained him. So one day when he was at dinner with them, he said: "Well, gentlemen, I hope one day you will come and see me on the prince's estate." They said: "We'll come." It happened not long afterwards that the court had to conduct an examination on the estate of Count Trehmetyev, whom no doubt your Excellency knows also.'

'I don't know him.'

'They didn't make the examination, but all the officials of the court betook them to the quarters of the count's steward, an old man, and for three days and three nights they played cards without stopping. The samovar and punch of course were on the table all the time. The old man got sick of them. To get rid of them he said to them: "You had better go and see the prince's German steward, gentlemen, he lives not far from here." "Oh, to be sure," they said, and half drunk, unshaven as they were and drowsy, they got into a cart and went off to the German's. … And the German, I must tell your Excellency, had only just got married; he had married a boarding-school miss, quite young and very genteel—(Tchitchikov expressed her gentility in his face). They were sitting at tea, the two of them, thinking of nothing at all, when the door opened, and the whole crew of them came reeling in.'

I can fancy—a nice set!' said the general laughing.

'The steward was so taken aback that he said; "What do you want?" "Ah," said they, "so that's your line! "And with that they put on quite a different face and countenance. … "We have come on business! How much spirit is being distilled on the estate? Show us your books." The German did not know what to do. They called in witnesses. They bound his arms and took him away to the town, and for a year and a half he lay in prison.'

'Upon my soul!' said the general.

Ulinka clasped her hands.

'His wife did all she could,' Tchitchikov went on. 'But what can an inexperienced young woman do? Luckily some kind people turned up who advised her to settle it amicably. He got off for two thousand roubles and a dinner to the officials. And at dinner when they were all rather exhilarated, and he also, they said to him—"Aren't you ashamed now of the way you treated us? You wanted us shaven and well got up in our dress-coats: no, you love us dirty, for any one will love us clean."'

The general went off into a roar of laughter, Ulinka gave a moan of distress.

'I don't understand how you can laugh!' she said quickly. Her lovely brow was darkened by wrath. … 'It was a most disgraceful action for which they ought all to have been sent, I don't know where. …'

'My dear, I don't in the least justify them,' said the general, 'but what's to be done if it is funny? How did it go?" Love us clean …"?'

'Dirty, your Excellency,' Tchitchikov prompted him.

'"Love us dirty, for any one will love us clean." Ha, ha, ha, ha!' And the general's huge frame began quivering with laughter. His shoulders which had once worn fringed epaulettes shook as though they were still wearing fringed epaulettes.

Tchitchikov permitted himself also a peal of laughter, but out of respect for the general he pitched it on the letter e: 'He, he, he, he, he!' and his frame too began quivering with laughter, though his shoulders did not shake, for they had never worn fringed epaulettes.

'I can fancy what a nice set the unshaven fellows were!' said the general, still laughing.

'Yes, your Excellency, in any case three days sitting up without sleep is like keeping a fast: they were exhausted, they were exhausted, your Excellency,' said Tchitchikov, still laughing.

Ulinka sank into a low chair and put her hand before her lovely eyes; as though vexed that there was no one who could share her indignation, she said: 'I don't know, but it merely makes me angry.'

And indeed the feelings in the hearts of the three persons present were extremely strange in their incongruity. One was amused by the uncompromising tactlessness of the German; another was amused at the funny trick the rogues had played: the third was distressed that an injustice had been committed with impunity. All that was lacking was a fourth to ponder over these words which aroused laughter in one and sadness in the other. For what is the significance of the fact that even in his degradation, a man besmirched and going to his ruin claims still to be loved? Is it an animal instinct or the faint cry of a soul stifled under the heavy burden of base passions, still breaking through the hardening crust of vileness, still wailing: 'Brother, save me!' There was no fourth for whom the ruin of a brother's soul was bitterest of all.

'I don't know,' said Ulinka, taking her hands from her face, 'all I can say is that it makes me angry.'

'Only please don't be angry with us,' said the general. 'We are not to blame for it. Give me a kiss and run away, for I am just going to dress for dinner. You'll dine with me of course,' said the general, suddenly addressing Tchitchikov.

'If only, your Excellency …'

'No ceremony. There will be cabbage soup.'

Tchitchikov bowed his head affably, and when he raised it again he did not see Ulinka, she had vanished. A gigantic valet with thick whiskers was standing in her place, holding a silver ewer and basin in his hands.

'You'll allow me to dress before you, won't you?' said the general, flinging off his dressing-gown, and tucking up his shirt sleeves over his heroic arms.

'Upon my word, your Excellency, you may do whatever you like before me,' said Tchitchikov.

The general began to wash, snorting and plashing like a duck. Soapy water was flying all over the room.

'How does it go?' he said, rubbing his thick neck from both sides, "Love us clean …"

'Dirty, your Excellency. "Love us dirty, for any one will love us clean."'

'Very good, very.'

Tchitchikov was in unusually good spirits, he was conscious of a sort of inspiration. 'Your Excellency,' he said.

'Well?' said the general.

'There is another story.'

'What is it?'

'It's an amusing story too, only it is not amusing for me. So much so indeed that if your Excellency …'

'Why, how's that?'

'This is how it is, your Excellency.' At this point Tchitchikov looked round and seeing that the valet with the basin had gone, began as follows: 'I have an uncle, a decrepit old man. He has three hundred souls and no heirs except me. He can't look after the estate himself, for he is too feeble, and he won't hand it over to me either. And the reason he gives for not doing so is very queer: "I don't know my nephew," he says; "perhaps he is a spendthrift; let him prove that he is a reliable person; let him get three hundred souls on his own account first, then I'll hand him over my three hundred too."'

'What a fool!'

'That is a very just observation, your Excellency. But imagine my position now.' Here Tchitchikov, dropping his voice, began saying as though it were a secret, 'He has a housekeeper, your Excellency, and the housekeeper has children. If I don't look out it will all go to them.'

'The silly old man has outlived his wits and that is all about it,' said the general. 'But I don't see how I can help you.'

'What I thought of was this: now until the new census lists are given in, owners of large estates must have accumulated besides their living serfs, a great number who have passed away and died. … So, your Excellency, if you were to transfer them to me, just as though they were living, by a regular deed of purchase, I could show the purchase deed to the old man, and he couldn't get out of giving me my inheritance.'

At this the general burst into a roar of laughter such as is rarely heard, he rolled into an armchair just as he was, flung his head back and almost choked. The whole household was alarmed. The valet appeared. His daughter ran into the room in a fright.

'Papa, what has happened to you?'

'Nothing, my dear, ha, ha, ha! Run along, we'll come into dinner directly. Ha, ha, ha!'

And several times after a rest the general's laughter broke out again with renewed violence, resounding from the entrance hall to the furthest room in the general's lofty echoing apartments.

Tchitchikov awaited with some uneasiness the end of this extraordinary mirth.

'Come, my dear fellow, you must excuse me! The devil must have put you up to such a trick! Ha, ha, ha! To humour the old gentleman and to foist dead ones on him. Ha, ha, ha! Your uncle, your uncle! What a fool you will make of him!'

Tchitchikov found himself in a somewhat embarrassing position; facing him stood the valet, with his mouth open and his eyes starting out of his head.

'Your Excellency, what makes you laugh costs me tears,' he said.

'Forgive me, my dear fellow! You have nearly been the death of me. Why, I'd give five hundred thousand to see your uncle's face when you show him the deed of purchase for three hundred serfs. But is he very aged? How old is he?'

'Eighty, your Excellency. But it is a private matter, I should be …' Tchitchikov looked significantly at the general, and at the same time glanced out of the corner of his eye at the valet.

'You can go, my good man. You can come back presently.' The whiskered giant withdrew.

'Yes, your Excellency … It's such a queer business, your Excellency, that I should prefer to keep it quiet. …'

'Of course, I quite understand that. What a fool the old man is! To think of such foolishness at eighty years old! What's he like to look at? is he strong and hearty? does he still keep on his legs?'

'He does get about but with difficulty.'

'What a fool! Has he got any teeth?'

'He has only two teeth, your Excellency.'

'What an ass! You mustn't be vexed at my saying so, you know, but he is an ass!'

'Quite so, your Excellency. Though he is a relation and it is painful to admit it, he certainly is an ass.' However, as the reader may surmise for himself, the admission was by no means painful to Tchitchikov, especially as it is doubtful whether he ever had an uncle. 'So that, if your Excellency would be so kind …'

'As to give you my dead souls? Why, for such an idea, I'd give you them land and all! You may take the whole cemetery. Ha, ha, ha, ha! To think of the old man! Ha, ha, ha, ha! What a fool! Ha, ha, ha, ha!' And the general's laugh went echoing through his apartments again.

(Here there is a gap in the manuscript.)